Illini host Iowa, No. 9 Minnesota

Meghan MacDonald spikes past Wisconsin´s Maria Carlini on Oct. 2. Jamey Fenske

Meghan MacDonald spikes past Wisconsin´s Maria Carlini on Oct. 2. Jamey Fenske

By Lucas Deal

For the second time in the last three weeks, the Illinois volleyball team will play host to a nationally ranked team this weekend at Huff Hall. The Illini will host Big Ten rivals Iowa on Friday night before welcoming No. 9 Minnesota on Saturday. The match against Minnesota will be nationally televised on ESPN2.

The Golden Gophers are currently 15-2 on the season and sit one game behind first-place Penn State in the Big Ten standings at 5-1. Coming off a 2004 season in which they finished second in the country, the Gophers only losses this season were on the road at No. 1 Nebraska and No. 8 Wisconsin. Both losses were in five games.

Last weekend, the Illini split a pair of matches on the road at Michigan and Michigan State, and are slowly beginning to recover from the injuries which have plagued them for much of the season.

Senior Rasa Virsilaite will play her first match since breaking her finger last month against Eastern Illinois at right outside hitter, and freshman Rachel Henderson will also play, rotating between her natural position at middle blocker and as serve receive on the back row.

“Now we actually have depth, which is a huge deal,” Illini head coach Don Hardin said. “Even though it’s just one or two players, we have depth at a couple positions that we haven’t had in the past.”

Both Iowa and Minnesota feature a slew of talented players, and Hardin said his team is still working on their own problems before scouting their opponents.

“We’ve been working out the kinks right now,” he said. “We’ll look at the way they run their offense so our players will know what’ll be coming at them.”

Illini senior outside hitter Rachel VanMeter agreed.

“We’ve done a lot of work on blocking and serve receive, and so we know how to defend their games,” she said.

Saturday’s match will also be a little bit of a homecoming for Minnesota head coach Mike Hebert. Hebert coached at Illinois for 13 seasons from 1983 to 1995, winning a school-record 323 matches and attending two Final Fours in 1987 and 1988.

Hardin worked as an assistant coach under Hebert from 1983 to 1987 before taking over at Louisville and is 7-11 against Hebert since becoming a head coach.

Hardin would like to win his eighth match against Hebert on Saturday, but knows how tough this weekend is setting up to be.

“If you lose a match to a top-10 team and win a match over a team that’s not in the top 25, you might play the same in both matches,” he said. “So it’s always hard to gauge. I gauge it by the one thing I have in my control – daily improvement. A lot of work, every week, a little step forward. It’s getting there.”

If the Illini can pull off the perfect weekend, VanMeter thinks the Illini could get on a roll.

“I remember my sophomore year we beat Minnesota at home in five and it was just probably one of the most memorable wins of my career,” she said. “We’re definitely looking forward to it.”